84000’s editorial team is composed of professional translators who are dedicated to ensuring that each translation published by 84000 is up to the scholarly standards required. Two of our editorial committee members, John Canti and Tom Tillemans, recently took time out of their busy schedules to answer questions about the translation and review process. They spoke with us about the challenges and excitement that comes with the project, and offered advice for aspiring translators.
Interview Questions for Editorial Team
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For you, what is the most exciting (and/or challenging) part of translating the Kangyur?
Tom Tillemans (TT): Undoubtedly the biggest challenge is to translate the tantra section. Our aim has been primarily to make these texts available, allow for multiple interpretations, but not supply those interpretations “built-in” to the translations. That said, the difficulties in syntax and vocabulary are considerable. They are greater than in most sūtras. Speaking personally, I would say that one of the most exciting things in actually delving into the various parts of the Kangyur is one sees a Buddhist canon that is extremely diversified in its positions and philosophies, more so perhaps than the traditional scholastic has recognized. The picture that may emerge is that of a more open-ended Buddhism.
John Canti (JC): The Buddha’s teaching, as recorded in the Kangyur and other canonical collections, is the source and authoritative reference point for the whole huge range of written and oral materials that are studied and practiced by Buddhists. However, in the Tibetan tradition at least, the Kangyur itself was not nearly as much studied as the later treatises and commentaries, both Indian and Tibetan, that drew important points from the Kangyur and systematized them into a coherent, structured approach to particular aspects of the doctrine. It is a bit like mining—the treatises processed the rich ore of the scriptures and from it produced refined materials for study and reflection. These treatises and commentaries, as students of any Tibetan Buddhist tradition will know, often used short quotes from Kangyur texts to back up a particular point.
What is really exciting, as we see the raw material of the Kangyur texts themselves appearing in translation, is to see these points of teaching appearing back in their original form and with their whole context, taught by the Buddha at a particular time and place to a named individual or group. The doctrinal points are familiar (usually, at least) but the setting and circumstances in which they were first taught give them a new depth and texture, and the narrative context brings them an immediacy and human perspective that they might have lost a little in the treatises. At the same time, the treatises provide us with a theoretical framework that is an enormous help in understanding and interpreting the Buddha’s statements, which were very often tailored to the needs of a particular individual or group audience.
What is challenging is to make these very important teachings clear and readable, as well as faithful to the originals. As they are the reference and bedrock of the whole of Buddhist thought and practice, we have to treat them with great care and respect. But it is not always easy to find the right terminology in English, especially for ideas that have had many shades of meaning and interpretation over the centuries. What is more, English itself is a rapidly changing and evolving language whose words and expressions have different connotations and associations in different contexts—and in different regions of the world—that are moreover liable to change quite fast, even in a decade.
It is comforting that we still have the Tibetan (and in some cases Sanskrit) originals as fixed reference points; but it is a scary thought that one day our translations may possibly be the only form in which these scriptures are accessible to most people. Personally, I hope that day will never come, and one of the results of the project we very much hope to see is that people will feel stimulated and inspired to learn the languages of the source texts and study them in the original; explored in that way, the scriptures will always yield more depth of meaning than could ever be conveyed in a single translation.
84000’s work flow says that you consult multiple editions. What does that mean? Is there a certain dictionary or translation tool you use?
JC: The translation into Tibetan of the Sanskrit scriptures brought to Tibet from India began in the eighth century, but it was only several centuries later that the texts were collected together into anything like the Kangyur we know today. In fact there is still no single, definitive Kangyur, but rather a number of Kangyurs of which the exact contents and their order are often significantly different. Before translating any of the texts, we therefore have to compare the various editions of that text found in different Kangyurs—and sometimes elsewhere, like the collections found preserved in caves in several central Asian sites. And, in addition to the various versions that may exist in Tibetan, a minority of the works in the Kangyur (between 10 and 15%) survived in the original Sanskrit; many were also translated into Chinese. The painstaking work of creating a full critical edition involves research that can sometimes take many years, and is therefore beyond 84000’s resources. Nevertheless, our translators consult as many of these available source texts as possible while they are working on a text, and note any differences between them which could have a significant impact on their interpretation or cast light on their history.
As for the tools we use for the translation work, there is unfortunately no single dictionary or other resource that can give us all the answers we need. We have gathered together some of the most useful reference works, and make them available to translators if they don’t already have them; and in the case of some genres of text there are specialized dictionaries, glossaries, and secondary sources that the translators will need to consult. Software translation tools, as far as this kind of translation is concerned, are still in their infancy. Some promising developments are under way, but for the moment the traditional skills of translation are our principal tools.
How do translators and editors determine passages that could have multiple meanings?
TT: To be frank, there is no one clear procedure for discerning ambiguities or passages admitting of multiple interpretations. Sometimes one sees such passages by comparing the Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese versions of the text. Sometimes it is a matter of syntax. Very often it is a matter of understanding compounds. Where the Sanskrit just has a compound, the Tibetan will usually add particles and other words to show how they understood the case relationships in that compound.
To illustrate, suppose we had something like “waste paper basket” in English and were translating from English to some other language. We could imagine a translator wondering if it should be rendered as, in effect, “a basket destined for paper that is waste” or as “a basket that is made of paper that is waste”. Now obviously the translator would choose based on his or her best understanding of how the term is used in the English language. And here the choice is easy: the second version is grammatically possible but does not conform to actual English usage. Of course, it is also possible that compounds have multiple plausible interpretations justified by common usage. Indian commentators not infrequently gloss compounds differently and even come up with different philosophical interpretations of certain key ideas. These are the most interesting examples, ones where grammar and philosophy meet.
What is the review process like at 84000? What types of things are you looking for?
TT: We want to make sure, first of all, that the syntax has been properly understood. An approximative understanding of Sanskrit or Tibetan syntax usually yields a vague or wrong translation. When a translator has a kind of “close enough for jazz” approach here or says that in any case they are basing themselves on a deep meaning that trumps the grammar, we get suspicious.
We, of course, also concern ourselves with terminology. We recognize that there are typically a number of different justifiable ways to translate technical terms. But we do want to eliminate clear misunderstandings or impossible renderings. We look at, for example, the way the term is understood in Sanskrit. After all, these are Indian texts!
Thirdly, we look at the English for readability, clarity, and style. Our aim is to have the translation, as much as possible, stand on its own. We thus try to avoid overly literal renderings.
What do you recommend for translators who aspire to become truly adept at translating the words of the Buddha?
TT: One needs to have very good language skills in written Tibetan. A working knowledge of Sanskrit is important too: you need to know, for example, how things like compounds and relative clauses work in Sanskrit and how they get translated into Tibetan. Of course, one needs to have a good understanding of Buddhist concepts and terminology, plus historical matters. You should know how texts are edited, what a critical edition is about. In short, one needs the tools of the philological trade.
On a personal note, my experience is that people often underestimate the literary dimension. It’s an enormous advantage if one regularly reads literature in one’s own language, and not just popular best-selling novels. Translators are writers and should have a developed sense for what constitutes good writing. Finally, one needs to think about what it means to translate. It’s not a straightforward process, a kind of mirroring of source and target languages. It involves a substantial dose of creativity.
84000 recently updated the Reading Room. How does the new Reading Room help translators, scholars and general users?
JC: Yes, we are in the middle of updating the Reading Room. We have recently released the first main phase, which has been a rebuild of what we call the “lobby” part of the site.
The lobby shows users a structured outline of both the Kangyur and Tengyur, each subdivided into their traditional thematic sections and subsections. As well as labels and short descriptions, each section is marked with how many texts it contains and how many have been translated or are currently being worked on. When users get down to the last level of the subsections, they can consult a full list of all the texts it includes, with their titles in English, Tibetan, and Sanskrit; a link to the translation if there is one; and a link to the original text (although this feature is not yet operational). A toggle allows them to see variant titles and a summary, if available, and filter buttons at the top of the list make it possible to restrict the list to those texts that have been translated. A future update will include a search function for titles, and a page where a list of recent translations can be seen all together in one place. We have added notes on each section, appearing when users click on the blue “Learn more about…” button, and will be gradually adding to these notes and updating them as we ourselves learn more about the Kangyur and Tengyur. For some of the individual titles, too, we have been including brief notes and cross-references, and will continue to add more.
So the lobby serves as an enormous, annotated catalogue and contents table for the Kangyur and Tengyur. As well as being an index to 84000’s growing collection of translations, it aims to provide readers with a detailed, guided presentation of both collections according to their traditional structure. It now includes the Tengyur as well as the Kangyur, although we still have a lot of work to do to normalize and translate the titles of the 3,459 Tengyur texts—let alone start translating the works themselves.
The second main phase, which we are now working on, is a completely restructured online text reader. We hope to release it in a few months’ time. In the meantime, the links from the lobby to the translations open the texts up still in our old text reader software, which displays the translations in a book-like double page spread. The page breaks are fixed, which is a problem on smaller screens; so one of our objectives has been to make the new text reader (like the new lobby) “responsive” to different devices, so that it can be read easily on smartphones and tablets as well as laptops and desktops. This means doing away with fixed pages and finding better ways to navigate through long texts. Glossary entries and notes will float up from the text, and a separate optional panel will show the glossaries, notes, and contents list in full. The text reader will also generate fully functional pdfs and other electronic book formats for users to download if they wish.
Apart from the new and ergonomic design, however, the biggest change is under the hood. We are converting our whole system to be compatible with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), an XML-based standard for marking up digital texts now widely used in many fields of the humanities, social sciences, and linguistics. What this means is that our translators and editors will be able to compile, record, and preserve within the translated text itself all sorts of information—notes on variant or doubtful passages in the source texts, glosses of important or unusual terms, recurrent text modules, tags for person and place names, cross-references and page markers from multiple source texts, and a whole range of other kinds of data—that will remain embedded in the text file where future translators, researchers, and scholars will be able to access and make use of it. The text reader software will use some of the encoded TEI information to display the appropriate headers, the most important notes and glossary entries, and so forth, but the primary focus of TEI encoding is semantic rather than presentational, and allows us to include a much wider range of important data related to the text than simple formatting instructions. For the time being, much of it will remain invisible to readers, but as our system evolves we will be developing specialized viewing options that make use of more of that embedded data. But in any case, because all the information is encoded in a standardized form, any researcher with the appropriate tools will be able to access and use it from now on, and, above all, it will remain safely and accessibly archived without being dependent on any proprietary software.
These developments of the Reading Room are very exciting and will open up many interesting avenues, some of which we cannot even imagine at present. The very detailed work involved in designing and constructing the software and converting our existing databases has taken a lot of time and effort; it has also meant that we haven’t been able to publish as many new texts in the last few months as we would have liked. But the more new texts we published, the harder it would have been to convert and adapt them to our new system. We felt that a short delay now, at this relatively early stage in 84000’s evolution, would be a small price to pay for the huge benefits of having a really solid, open, flexible, and forward-looking platform as the foundation for this whole, immensely precious collection.
John Canti is a Buddhist practitioner, translator, and physician. While studying medicine at Cambridge University in England, he first had contact with Buddhist teachers, and started to practice under their guidance. In 1972, he met Dudjom Rinpoche, who became one of his three principal teachers. The others were Kangyur Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, both of whom he met soon afterwards. Qualifying meanwhile as a doctor, he held hospital appointments in London and Cambridge, starting surgical training. But in the late seventies, somewhat disillusioned with medicine in an academic setting, he moved to eastern Nepal to establish tuberculosis programs in two remote hill districts virtually without health services.
A few years later, however, in 1980, he was presented with a unique opportunity, which he seized: to undertake a long retreat in the Dordogne, France, practicing under the guidance of Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Pema Wangyal Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khenpo. After two consecutive three-year retreats, he and some of his fellow retreatants, inspired by their teachers and with the aim of making some of the major works of Tibetan Buddhism available to Western readers, formed the Padmakara Translation Group, of which he is now president. He also had the honor of serving Dudjom Rinpoche as physician during his final years, and subsequently coordinated the medical care of other lamas and practitioners in India, Nepal, and Europe, as well as that of three-year retreatants in the Dordogne.
Still based in the Dordogne, he has continued his translation work with Padmakara, and for many years was also a Fellow of the Tsadra Foundation. In 2009 he was appointed Editorial Chair of the newly created 84000 project, and (although he has a translation of the Uttaratantra-shastra with Mipham Rinpoche’s commentary still to complete) his work for 84000 is now his principal occupation.
Tom Tillemans received his bachelor’s degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He earned his master’s degree in Sanskrit, Chinese and Philosophy from the Universities of Lausanne and Geneva, and then his doctorate in Buddhist Studies from Lausanne. He completed post-doctorate research on Buddhist logic at Hiroshima University in Japan.
From 2002 until 2010, Tillemans was General Secretary of the International Association of Buddhist Studies; he edited its journal from 1998-2006. In addition to his present work as editor-in-chief for 84000, he continues his research on comparative philosophy, Indian and Tibetan Buddhist logic and epistemology, Madhyamaka philosophy, and indigenous Tibetan grammatical literature. He is the author of several books and over sixty articles. His latest book, How do Mādhyamikas Think? And other essays on the Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle (Boston: Wisdom Publications), will appear in bookstores in early 2016.